By Fran Syverson
Taking a break from top-level talks about limiting medium-range nukes in Europe, two diplomats venture into the alpine woods outside their Geneva meeting room. One is Russian, a long-timer at this task; the other, an American newbie at the job. Both want a break from the stressful negotiation, yet somehow their talk inevitably veers to the frightening, world-endangering issues at hand.
With this opening theme, why are Playhouse theatre-goers bursting into gales of laughter? Aren’t they taking it seriously? Do they think the play is a spoof?
No, it’s because playwright Lee Blessing has laced humor and wit into his ‘80s Cold War-era drama, “A Walk in the Woods.” Andrey Botvinnik, brisk but warm, tries to engage his American counterpart, Joan Honeyman, in relaxed conversation and an appreciation of the pleasant air and the trees. Ahh! The trees! Andrey loves being out under the trees. And such trees! The huge, dramatic tree that dominates the stage, and the surrounding graphics depicting the forest, are credited to Rei Yamamoto.
Joan, however, wants to parry ideas, wants to create approaches that could possibly bring the two superpowers closer to agreement at the bargaining table. New at her assignment, Joan is bombastic in expressing her views. A war of words ensues—sometimes confrontational, sometimes conciliatory, often very funny.
The pair take four “walks in the woods,” one for every season, as the high-level talks convene quarterly. Autumn leaves flutter down, snow falls, spring flowers blossom….all symbolic of a sense of ongoingness. Everything changes; nothing changes. Perhaps Andrey is right—leaders talk and talk, but agreement is never reached. Yet Joan can’t accept that premise—she feels that as long as opponents keep talking, it may keep worse disasters from occurring.
John Prosky is a splendid Botvinnik, erect, urbane, wickedly humorous as he pointedly espouses his observation that Russians and Americans are the same—as countries, as people. Both seek power; both distrust the other, he contends. Both suffer the delusion of being peace-loving, while ever gearing up for war. He has been here before and is profoundly cynical about accomplishments.
Nancy Youngblut as Joan seems totally beleaguered at Andrey’s cynicism that the talks really never gain their goal. She’s fervently idealistic, believing that perseverance and honest bargaining will yield results. Yet, as opposite as they are, the diplomats, as the seasons progress, begin to portray the longing of people on both sides to make contact with each other.
Why revisit this topic, one may ask. Why not? How different are our global circumstances today? Lee Blessing, long opposed to the arms race, brings us his story because the issues, sadly, are relevant still. And the underlying hope shines through: that people and cultures will find they are more alike than different from each other.
Allow time to see a marvelous photo-history of real-life, decades-long arms talks displayed on the foyer walls. Rachel Fain created the content; Diane Siegel did the images and layout, and Matt Herrmann the installation. It is one of the Playhouse’s new missions of offering exhibits relevant to each show, says Christian Lebano, artistic director.
Geoffrey Wade directs “A Walk in the Woods.” Estelle Campbell and Christian Lebano are co-producers. Stage manager is Sarah Poor, with Wysper Erigio assisting. Candice Cain designed the austere costumes befitting the time and place. Lighting design is by Pablo Santiago, and sound by Jeff Gardner.
“A Walk in the Woods” truly is a very funny play about a very serious topic. “Walk” has garnered nominations for a Tony Award in 1988 and a Pulitzer Prize. At the Playhouse, it runs weekends through Saturday, Feb. 21. Curtain time is 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:30 for Sunday matinees. The popular cast “talk-backs” are held after each matinee. Admission is $25 general, $22 for seniors (65+), $15 for youth (13-21) and $12 for children 12 and under.
The Playhouse is at 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre. Eateries and free parking are nearby. For reservations or more information, phone (626) 355-4318, or visit the website, www.sierramadreplayhouse.org for online ticketing. For reservations for groups of 15 or more, phone (626) 836-2125.